You would be pissed off, too.
xxxHOLiC is Production IG’s TV adaptation of an ongoing seinen manga created by the highly-successful CLAMP, known for their lithe character designs, fusion of shoujo and shounen styles, and penchant for recycling characters. Over the years, CLAMP’s interlinked stories have congealed into a sort of fantasy universe, in which each series is but a mere chapter in its sprawling history. Ask any CLAMP fan – part of the irresistible CLAMP appeal is the giddy nostalgia you feel when a familiar relic or character pops in unexpectedly, reminding you that the separation between their fictitious worlds is, well, rather flimsy.
Beautiful as they may be on paper, CLAMP works have a tragic history of having their plots butchered during the animation process (*ahem* Cardcaptor Sakura T_T).
So, what makes xxxHOLiC the exception to this unfortunate rule?
An Introduction to the World of xxxHOLiC
Nineteen year-old Kimihiro Watanuki has a gift — he has the ability to see youkai, and his presence constantly attracts them to his side. One day, while trying to evade a swarm of ghosts, Watanuki stumbles upon the elusive wish-granting shop of Yuuko Ichihara, a powerful magician and intermediary for fulfilling important desires. She offers to grant his wish to be free of these troublesome spirits; in return, he must become a part-timer at her shop.
Watanuki’s fated meeting with Yuuko initiates a strange and wondrous journey of self-discovery through which he gradually gains a deeper understanding of his own potential, experiences another side of the unseen world of spirits, and learns that no wish is ever without its price.
Hyakkiiyakou, the ‘Night Parade of 100 Demons’.
If the CLAMP universe were a spinning wheel, then xxxHOLiC (along with its ‘sibling’ Tsubasa: ReserVOIR Chronicle) would be the hub — serving, in part, to tie all of their stories together, and providing a halcyon vantage point for the endless battles and journeys of other CLAMP anime.
xxxHOLiC is deeply philosophical and devotes much of its energy to exploring recurring themes, sometimes pausing briefly to ponder connections to other stories, and other times delving deeper into its own mythos. Human relationships, costly desires, dangerous spirits, chance encounters — whatever may be the case, the enigmatic and alluring Yuuko makes clear from the very beginning that hitsuzen (loosely translated as ‘inevitability’) is paramount, and coincidence is merely an illusion.
The Irony of xxxHOLiC
Spring cleaning lulz, courtesy of Maru and Moro! (Don’t ask me which one is Maru and which one is Moro – I always forget.) Those who have seen Tsubasa: ReserVOIR Chronicle will recognize this staff as the ‘price’ paid to Yuuko by Fye D. Flourite
So, back to the question – what makes xxxHOLiC special? For once, a CLAMP manga has been paid proper homage — the adaptation of the xxxHOLiC was performed flawlessly. Rather than struggling to smash 100+ manga chapters into a single season, or quartering it and Frankensteining on some unrelated nonsense to make it television-ready, the production team manages a deft compromise that preserves the overall feel and direction of the original story.
Knowing exactly where to reduce the pace of Yuuko’s cryptic narratives to a laze; or which manga chapters to linger on; or where to take creative license (like in the snowball fight episode) and where to stick to the script — these artistic sensibilities have been instrumental in transforming the xxxHOLiC manga into a charming animated feature that appeal to veterans and newcomers alike.
This has got to be the most EPIC snowball fight EVER!!
If you are expecting to see fireballs and man-eating demons, look elsewhere; this is not your typical horror show. On screen, it shuffles along like a summer ghost story (think Mushishi), shrewdly flashing its paranormal thrills and just as easily slinking back into silliness.
Set in modern Japan, the first episode “Hitsuzen” opens with Watanuki walking… then jogging… and finally sprinting through a crowded street. One would assume that he is caught up in some cliché psychological conflict, the way the screen focuses on his irritated expression and filters the nearby chatter… that is, until director Tsutomu Mizushima skillfully weaves in the punchline, switching to a panning side shot and revealing apurplish, cycloptic miasma of youkai, just inches away from engulfing him!
In his comical struggle to escape, Watanuki accidentally whacks a wooden fence, causing the youkai to dematerialize. He finds himself face-to-face with a mysterious house (yes, in the middle of metropolitan Tokyo), adorned with golden crescent moons and deep ceremonial reds, all seeming to beckon his entrance; it is only seconds before he is (literally) pulled inside by the unseen threads of fate, and a little help from Maru and Moro. Inside awaits reclined, pipe-puffing Yuuko Ichihara, who introduces herself and explains to Watanuki that their encounter was not the product of happenstance, but of hitsuzen.
Animation, Seiyuu and All the Rest
I wonder how long she had to have been smoking to fill the room up like that…
xxxHOLiC is a series I value more for its story than its animation. I mean, it may not be B-budget animation, but it ain’t no eye candy either. The inking strikes me as a bit flat at times, and although I suspect this might be a deliberate move on CLAMP’s part, I cannot say for certain why they would choose to do so.
And yes, its slightly choppy movements and inert non-action scenes may be a turnoff, but Production IG’s mastery of unique visual perspectives and Mizushima’s tasteful directing more than compensate for these shortcomings. The animation shies away from conspicuous, budget-building stills, and its exquisite visual angles are not reserved solely for the beginnings and ends of episodes.
The story is refreshingly unburdened by cliffhangers, melodramatic character introductions, confusing plot twists, and other gimmicks; Mizushima instead focuses on fully developing each chapter, giving the it more of an episodic feel and pushing the overriding plot into the background.
Watanuki’s patented shark impression.
Kudos to voice actor Jun Fukuyama (Lelouch Lamperouge in Code Geass, Asap Suzuki in Wings of Rean, the Manticore and Masami Saotome in Boogiepop Phantom, etc.) as well, who flaunts his versatile vocal talent as Kimihiro Watanuki, singlehandedly filling every mundane moment with his hilarious tirades and spastic gesticulations.
When Watanuki is not competing for the attention of his lovely classmate Kunogi Himawari, or verbally assaulting stoic, would-be archnemesis/best friend/guardian Shizuka Doumeki, or throwing a fit about Yuuko’s lavish food orders (not to mention her alcoholic binges that would put even Eva’s Misato to shame), he is dancing like a marionette to the offbeat tune of hitsuzen — assisting Yuuko with her wish-granting, meeting strange beings from the spirit world, and discovering with every step that the true mysteries of life lie hidden not within the ordinary or even the otherworldly, but in the strange design that binds them. With Yuuko’s haunting tutelage leading the way, the result is a deliberately paced ‘push-and-pull’ between situational comedy and mysticism that places the development of Watanuki’s character at center stage.
First Season Review
I love how this anime sends shivers up my spine just as easily as it sends me into fits of laughter. Arguably the pinnacle of CLAMP’s eclectic style, xxxHOLiC is an one-of-a-kind crossroads of comedy and creepiness.
The first season was adapted much in the same way that Tsubasa was, covering the first arc of the story without breaking into pivotal plot changes that herald the darker, second arc. (For kicks, watch the Tsubasa anime, then read the manga up to the same point and watch Sakura turn badass — then you’ll see why Bee Train is on my production studio blacklist.) However, xxxHOLiC was adapted far more elegantly, possibly due to CLAMP’s Ageha Ohkawa being actively involved as executive producer.
Unable to furnish conclusive explanations for several mysteries (such as the reason why Yuuko continually warns Watanuki about Kunogi Himawari, which is revealed later in the story), the series opts for an open ending, using the familiar ‘multi-episode dilemma’ as the climax and tacking on a flashback chapter from Watanuki’s childhood as a clever afterthought.
Some hard-nosed CLAMP fans will howl about the way the first season shuns all ties to Tsubasa, save for a clever reference guised as a scene of Moro trying to beat a magical embroidered butterfly out of a carpet with Fye’s wizard staff in episode eight (see above). Yet, the TV version more than compensates by bringing to life facets of the central characters’ personalities that may elude the static backdrop of a comic book. Sayaka Ohara especially, is the perfect voice for Yuuko Ichihara, capturing all of Yuuko’s wisdom, mystery, allure and mischievousness with her delicate intonation.
All said, xxxHOLiC is a hefty dose of the supernatural that mesmerizes in its own unique way. Required viewing for CLAMP addicts, and a must-see for those seeking a quirky change of pace.